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This Web Series Shows Good TV Doesn't Have to Be Like a Novel

Video Still/Janky Clown Productions

For years, it seems, the highest praise you could offer a show is that it was “like a novel”—serialized, pre-planned, with a fixed ending in mind. But two decades after The New York Times first suggested that TV series had replaced the novel, that truism has become as creatively stifling as it is boring. Enter “High Maintenance,” the cult web series that premiered its second season on Vimeo yesterday. Each episode, made by husband-and-wife team Katja Blichfield and Ben Sinclair, is small-scale and self-contained, made for snacking, not binging. It’s nothing we think today’s good television should be—less Dickens, more Chekhov.

In the two years since Blichfield and Sinclair released their first batch of episodes online for free, “High Maintenance” has become the critical darling of the web series world, and with good reason. The series follows a weed deliveryman, played by Sinclair, and his motley clients: anxious cancer patients, bougie couples, asexual magicians. (As a comedy about stoners without any of the surreal zaniness of classic stoner comedies, the series may be our best cultural document of society’s normalization of weed.) We know almost nothing about Sinclair's bearded drug dealer, who exists mainly as our entree into the apartments of these creative-class Brooklynites—he’s identified only as the Guy, as in, “Can you call the guy?” Lasting between six and 19 minutes, the episodes share the humane texture of HBO’s “Enlightened” and Amazon’s “Transparent,” but with the economical storytelling and quiet revelations of the best short story collections.

At its most obvious, each episode—there are 16 so far, including the three new ones—is a precise character study of the kind of people quoted in New York Times trend stories. Couples at a backyard barbecue praise Tulum and argue about whether “Scandal” is too outrageous or Vice News too sensational. But “High Maintenance” goes beyond that level of shallow relatability to compassionately explore the oddities and pathos of urban living. In one of the series’ early outings, the guy sits on the subway next to an oblivious policemen clipping his fingernails. In the new season’s second episode, a deaf actress complains about her Yale Drama School audition: “I thought doing that Fat Girl monologue from ‘Louie’ was such a good idea.” Characters are sketched out with marvelous concision, showing what we can learn about people from the things that clutter their lives: a fridge plastered with wedding invitations, nightstands piled with books, evenings spent alone on the couch.

“High Maintenance” got its share of attention from cable, and sketched a deal with FX that the network ultimately passed on—thankfully. Instead, they turned to Vimeo, which funded these new episodes—each one is available from Vimeo for $1.99 each, and three more will debut in January—in the website’s first foray into original content. Even the best web series—Abbi Jacobsen and Ilana Glazer’s “Broad City,” or Issa Rae’s “Awkward Black Girl”—often feel like audition tapes for real TV shows. But “High Maintenance” has no more fully realized form than this: It’s the perfect meeting of ambition and medium, and the best example of what a web series can do that a traditional TV show cannot.

High Maintenance - Trailer from Janky Clown Productions on Vimeo.